There's a bit of a disconnect at the Arctic Club Hotel, which has its ambitious gastronomic restaurant & bar, called JUNO, one level below the hotel's lobby & lounge, called Polar Bar. If you've come for the absinthe, you can't just wander into JUNO from 3rd Avenue and slide onto a stool; you've got to be aware that the Green Fairie awaits upstairs, past the hotel's reception desk.
We attended the hotel's grand opening last week and wound up our visit with the absinthe ritual conducted by barman Viktor Kustov. Slotted spoon placed over absinthe glass, sugar cube placed on slotted spoon, Lucid absinthe poured over sugar cube and into glass, sugar cube set afire, then extinguished by drips of icewater from absinthe fountain. Impressive ceremony, even if the result is nothing more than a cool, watery, licorice-flavored drink. Certainly doesn't taste like a dangerous poison. But wait! There's more!
With the lovely absinthe fountain sitting next to me, filled already with ice and water, and a couple empty glasses already set out just waiting for a customer, any customer, to place an order, I figured they might actually know what they were doing here. The bartender carefully poured, and in fact slightly overpoured, the absinthe in the glass... then, my worst fears were realized, as the bartender silently brought out a lighter, and was getting ready to place flame to cube... Noooooooooo !
What happens next is, as they say, "below the jump."
We resume our story just as the barman is about to set fire to Robert Hess's drink.
"Oh, you prefer it the French way?" the bartender asked.
"No, I prefer it the RIGHT way."
Explains Hess, "When you are serving a proper absinthe you never, never, never, apply any flame. Doing so would be like having the sommelier drop several ice cubes into your Pinot Noir before placing the glass in front of you.
"The bartender explained that their manager [the since-departed Aaron Angelo] comes from New Orleans, which apparently makes him an absinthe expert, even though nobody has been serving real absinthe down there (until just recently) within modern memory. And the only place that was even trying to present the absinthe "ritual" (using a pastis), was a divy little corner bar, that was more for the tourists than for the true art of the product.
"Apparently the manager at the Polar Bar is under the misconception that there are two proper ways of serving absinthe, the French way "sans feu", and the "Czech" way in which the sugar cube is decimated by fire.
"In truth, there is only one proper way to serve real absinthe, which is to slowly drip ice-cold water over a sugar cube which is suspended via an absinthe spoon over the glistening green elixir waiting below. As the cold water slowly dissolved the sugar, it also invokes a reaction in the absinthe and the oils suspended transparently within the clear green liquor gradually drop out of suspension, which results in a milky opalescent cloud which forms in the glass. This is commonly referred to as "louche", and in a properly made absinthe, it is a lovely and anticipated result of this relaxing ritual.
"In the 90's, in order to respond to a growing underground culture which was slowly gathering around this mysterious and misunderstood product known as "absinthe", we suddenly see things coming out of the Czech Republic being labeled as absinthe, but which have about as much in common with real absinthe as grape juice mixed with vodka does to wine.
"One problem with the "czech-sinthe" (aka. "faux-sinthe", or even "crap-sinthe") was that since it wasn't made properly, or with the right ingredients, it wouldn't "louche". Therefore the expected absinthe ritual would have no actual reason for being used here. This problem however was soon solved by creating a "new" ritual which could be applied to this faux-sinthe. Since this product coming into Europe had caught the imagination of the "goth" crowd, a ritual including the use of flame just seemed like the right thing to do. And so by soaking the sugar cube with the liquor, and then placing it on the spoon above, and lighting it on fire, became the "new" ritual.
"This ritual however should only be applied to "faux-sinthe". And the only bars who should server "faux-sinthe" should be those who also would proudly serve "faux-wine" (ie. Franzia) to their customers."
Hess concludes that he hopes the Polar Bar will gradually discover real absinthe, and the real way to serve it. "Such a classic and elegant location, deserves to be serving drinks which are equally classy and elegant."
For more details about "real" absinthe, how to find it, serve it, and enjoy it, Hess recommends the FAQ at the Wormwood Society's website.
And finally, at some point in the evening, you should see the Northern Lights. Not figuratively, either. Climb one more set of stairs and poke your head into the Dome Room, completely restored. It's one of Seattle's most elaborate private dining rooms, just the setting for your next grand dinner party.
The International Kitchen
Cooking school vacations in Italy, France & Spain.